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Issue 324

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TRANSNATIONAL CORPORATIONS
Farm fight
Monsanto and others are sued for spreading GM food

Word corner

Nicaragua &
Guatemala

Nicaragua is named after Nicarao, the chieftain of a local tribe. The capital Managua comes from Lake Managua, which is in turn from the Guarani ama (rain) and nagua (spirit or ghost).

For the origin of Guatemala, take your pick from two Indian words: Quauhtemellan ('land of the eagle') or Uhatzmalha ('mountain where water gushes').

Susan Watkin

Six farmers from France and the United States have launched a lawsuit against Monsanto and other corporations involved in genetic engineering of crops. The lawsuit, filed early this year in Washington DC, alleges that Monsanto, the Dow Chemical Company, AstraZeneca and Novartis International formed a cartel in an attempt to monopolize the genetically modified (GM) maize and soya seed markets. The law suit also claims that the so-called cartel exerted influence over the non-GM industry, made deceptive statements to make genetically engineered seeds appear desirable to farmers and imposed excessive 'technology fees' upon them.

Corky Jones and his three sons, who farm 1,100 hectares of maize and soya in the US state of Nebraska, have decided to turn their back on the technology of the GM industry. This, he explains, is not going to be easy: 'We don't know what damage has been done to the farm already. Nobody will tell us whether our land or even our machinery is contaminated [with genetically modified seed] and thus whether or not we will be able to sell our crops next year free of any genetically modified organisms. Also, on a more practical note, there is very little seed available now that can be classed as clean and by concentrating on this new technology the major seed companies have allowed their gene pools to shrink, reducing the varieties available to us. This new technology has had the effect of concentrating power in the agricultural industry into one or two very powerful companies who appear to be able to ride roughshod over everybody - including the farmers and the Government.'

Farmers are hanging great hopes on the case's outcome, says Jones. 'A victory in this lawsuit will allow family farmers of the world to retain ownership of their seeds, their farms and produce a food supply that is safe, adequate and reasonably priced for all consumers.'

John Swire

Bougainville breakthrough
Papua New Guinea (PNG) has agreed to a referendum on independence for the island of Bougainville, where a secessionist war ended with a ceasefire in 1998. Getting acceptance of the idea of a referendum has been a key stumbling block in negotiations between Bougainvilleans and the Government so far. But there are several stages before a referendum can be held. First, an interim provincial government will be established under PNG law, then an autonomous regional government elected and finally ‘the parties will address the referendum issue. The parties agree that the holding of the referendum may be deferred until after autonomy has been implemented and can be fairly and properly judged.’

Pacific Islands Monthly online: www.pim.com.fj

Pre-schoolers on Prozac
Increased numbers of US pre-school children are being prescribed stimulants and anti-depressants such as Ritalin and Prozac. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association covering children aged from two to four years old found that the use of antidepressants had doubled and the use of stimulants tripled from 1991 to 1995. The rapid increase occurred even though none of the most commonly used drugs had been approved for children under six and little research has been done on their possible effects. Joseph Coyle of the Harvard Medical School has criticized the practice. Pre-school, he says, ‘is a time of extraordinary, unprecedented changes in the brain. We have very little information about the long-term impact of treatment with these drugs early in development.’

The Washington Post www.washingtonpost.com

Free the becak
A feature of Jakarta’s streets – the becak or pedicab – has become a source of scuffles between Indonesian poor and the Government. Earlier this year six becak drivers representing some 130 fellow drivers lodged a class-action civil lawsuit demanding that the Governor allow pedicab drivers to operate in housing complexes and markets in the capital. Officially banned in the city, becaks were allowed by Governor Sutiyoso to operate due to the economic crisis. But this position has been reversed, leading to the confiscation of numerous pedicabs, sometimes using violence. Several activists, including Wardah Hafidz from the Urban Poor Consortium (see NI 318), were charged and convicted of participating in an ‘illegal’ rally with about 100 becak drivers. Hafidz says this is absurd: ‘The law is a product of a regime that didn’t appreciate its residents’ rights to deliver their opinion.’

Indonesian NGO Forum for Transportation/SUSTRAN News

President’s secret identity
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has created a new comic-strip hero, ‘Patriot’. The character, a computer technician with a secret identity, recites articles from the new constitution while beating criminals with his baseball bat. Omar Cruz, the artist of the series, which appears in the official government newspaper, says Patriot ‘is the common Venezuelan personified, who personally suffers the effects of crime and who exacts vengeance for the death of his wife and son during a robbery’. Patriot has been described as a mix of Spiderman, the Mexican wrestler ‘El Santo’ and the hero of marginalized Mexico City tenants ‘Superbarrio’. It has also been noted that Patriot bears a resemblance to Chávez. While Cruz denies that this is intentional, he says: ‘In secret, Chávez is a friend of the Patriot.’

Latin America Press Vol 32 No 10

Unequal opportunity
At least one in every three job applications by migrant or ethnic-minority candidates in Western Europe is met with discrimination, says the International Labour Organization (ILO). ‘Discrimination is particularly high in service sectors, notably in branches where contact with clients is an essential element of the services provided,’ the ILO says, adding that the trend is ‘extremely worrying’ since services are precisely the area where job growth is strongest.

International Labour Organization: www.ilo.org

Rioting over religion
Nigeria’s principal Islamic leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, has warned that the bloody clashes between Muslim and Christian elements in the city of Kaduna pose a ‘dangerous and very serious threat to the peace and unity of this great nation’. Ethnic and religious violence, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives since democracy was restored last May, impedes Nigeria’s revival after years of military rule which plundered the nation’s wealth, says President Olusegun Obasanjo. But his critics, who include some of the parliamentary leaders of his own People’s Democratic Party, say he is also to blame for the conflict. In particular, they claim that his failure to take a stand on critical issues such as the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) in some Muslim-dominated states has exacerbated the crisis.

Chris McGreal/Newslink Africa

Oldest library, newest censors
A modern version of the grand library of Alexandria, which was destroyed 1,600 years ago, is nearing completion in Egypt – just as censorship is growing in the country. Ptolemy I, of the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt after the Pharaohs, established the original Bibliotheca Alexandria 2,290 years ago. It is said to have housed the largest collection of knowledge of the time, together with a museum and the first university in the world. Revered scholars, such as Euclid and Archimedes, were drawn to it. But a month into the year 2000, just as librarians and archivists are getting ready for the library’s opening, censors banned 14 newspapers and newsletters, including one published by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Scholars and free thinkers who gathered at the ancient library of Alexandria would find themselves cramped in today’s atmosphere.

Dale Gavlak/Gemini News Service

AFRICA
Forgotten floods
Cyclones take their toll on the inhabitants of Madagascar

Madagascar has, like Mozambique, been hit by cyclones and heavy rains leading to disastrous floods, but the world has hardly noticed. Some 150 people have died and Madagascar has lost much of its livestock and subsistence crops of rice, maize and cassava in the flooded fields, leaving 200,000 people urgently in need of food.

UNICEF was the first aid agency to get essential supplies into Madagascar and out to affected areas a week after the first cyclone. Slow to get the attention of the world press, it was all of three weeks since Cyclone Eline and a week after Cyclone Gloria had struck before the UN said it would divert some aid from its World Food Programme, which was heading for Mozambique, to Madagascar. A three-million-dollar relief programme has now been launched, with food arriving in parcels dropped by the few helicopters so far made available. As roads improve, if weather permits, aid workers need to rely less on expensive aircraft for transporting supplies. Meanwhile, as a great number of affected areas remain inaccessible, many of the 12,000 people trapped by mudslides and high water in isolated villages have yet to receive any outside help.

The real extent of the damage in Madagascar remains unknown. There has been almost no news to date of the impact of the cyclones and flooding on the environment. Madagascar is home to many unique species including endangered lemur and tortoise populations. Environmental workers say they have received reports of dead lemurs floating in floodwaters.

Mal Mitchell / Madagascar Flood Appeal
Azafady is raising funds to help send food to the
worst-affected areas in the east of Madagascar.
They ask that cheques, specifying that the donation
be for the Madagascar Flood Appeal, be sent to:
Azafady, Studio 7, 1a Beethoven Street,
London W10 4LG, Britain.
Website: www.azafady.org

Oily congress
Last year thousands mobilized against free trade in the anti-WTO battle in Seattle. This year a newly formed group of activists wants to take on the oil industry’s corporate gathering. The Counter Petroleum Congress Communications Committee is calling for support to protest the World Petroleum Congress, an oil industry event to be held in Calgary, Canada. The theme for the congress is: ‘Petroleum for global development: Networking people, business and technology to create value.’ According to the Counter Congress: ‘All over the world, indigenous peoples, workers and the environment are suffering from their “creation of value”, and we hope that June 2000 will see a large force of public opposition to these problems.’

For more details: www.nisto.com/activism/project/petrol.html

Spies get Hungary
The FBI is coming to Budapest to fight the Russian mafia. The first FBI office outside the US will be set up in the Hungarian capital to keep an eye on organized crime. But Hungarian police sources have noted that the US officers will not have the automatic right to bear arms, make arrests, or search homes. The Russian secret services and many of their European Union counterparts are reportedly none too happy about the agreement; they see it as signaling the FBI’s expansion into Central Europe.

Transitions online: www.tol.org

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Big Bad World by Polyp
Big Bad World cartoon.

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